Naval Commandos in Operation Jackpot
Commodore Abdul Wahed Chowdhury, BU BB s/m (G) psc (rtd) of the Bangladesh Navy is one of the highest gallantry awardees living. Commodore Chowdhury was the Chief of Operation Jackpot, a Naval CNaval Commandos in Operation Jackpotommando Operation that attacked and sank ships at Chittagong port by the Karanafuli River on August 15, 1971. Beginning his career as a submariner in PNS Gazi in 1964, he later served in Bangladesh Navy holding many important positions including the Director of Naval Intelligence and a member of the National Committee. He won many national and international awards during the service. In an exclusive interview, Commodore Chowdhury talks to Amitava Kar of The Daily Star about the Liberation War and the success of Operation Jackpot.
The Daily Star (TDS): Please describe to us the circumstances under which the Naval Commando Force was formed.
Commodore AW Chowdhury (AWC): In March 1971, I was in France serving as a submariner in PNS Mangro, a Daphné-class submarine. We had a total crew of 45 -- 13 of them Bangalis and the rest, Pakistanis. The 7th March speech of Bangabandhu deeply moved us. The crackdown of 25th March changed everything. How could they run innocent people over with tanks? I made up my mind. I would join the Liberation War and persuade the other Bangalis on board to join me. We would leave the submarine without telling our Pakistani colleagues because from their point of view it would be nothing but mutiny. We were the first military personnel who responded to the call of liberation from abroad (France) on March 29, 1971.
TDS: How did you manage to communicate with them under tight scrutiny?
AWC: I did not talk to anyone about this on the submarine. It was only when we came to our shore accommodation that I informed them—one person at a time so that there would be no witness. I was in charge of the safe where all confidential documents and passports were kept. I took out all 45 passports and put them in the cupboard in my room on the shore. If I took out only the 13 passports belonging to the Bangali submariners, it would raise a red flag. Finally, out of the 13 Bangalis, only 8 joined us.
TDS: How did you plan to join the war?
AWC: The plan was to cross the French border and go to Geneva. We wanted to reach India, go close to the border of Bangladesh and join the Liberation War as soon as possible. A friend, a South African submariner, told me that Switzerland was a neutral country and we could apply for political asylum in Geneva. France was likely to support Pakistan because the Pakistani government had purchased the submarine from France.
TDS: Did everything go according to plan?
AWC: I purchased train tickets for all of them. We left Toulon one by one or in a group of two, leaving the rest of the passports in my cupboard. But when we tried to enter Switzerland we were told that we needed a visa to enter. We did not want to seem suspicious. So I talked to the lady at the immigration in French and told her that we would go back to Paris and come back with our visas.
TDS: What did you do next?
AWC: We boarded a train to Paris and got down in Lyon. I found out that we could enter Spain without a visa. Next morning we were on a train to Barcelona. We contacted the Indian Consulate in Barcelona immediately. They sent us to Madrid and the approval for our political asylum in India came through in 10 minutes. We would go to Rome and from there we would catch a flight to India in an Indian Airliner which was coming from New York. But it got delayed in New York due to a labour strike. While disembarking in Rome, we saw a lot of journalists and cameramen waiting for us. Once we were on board, Mr. Sri Bedi, Charges de Affairs of the Indian High Commission, had told the press about our defection.
TDS: Did you get in trouble because of this?
AWC: The Pakistan embassy officials got the news and came rushing to snatch us away. But we said, “Look, we were born afresh on March 26. We are going to fight for our country.” So instead of waiting for 10 hours in Rome, in the duration of which a lot of things could have gone wrong (Italy had a good relationship with Pakistan), we went to Geneva. Within an hour, we were on a flight to Bombay. When we arrived at Bombay we were taken to Delhi and put in different safe locations. It was decided that the 8 of us were going to become Naval Commandos.
TDS: Please tell us about Operation Jackpot.
AWC: There were two routes for the Pakistanis to reach Bangladesh. One was by air and it was blocked by India. The other was the sea which the Pakistanis were using to send logistical support to their soldiers in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh forces under General Osmani and the Indian authorities jointly decided to block this route to cut off their supply line. We did not have a navy or any ships. We, the 8 commandos, were going to do it. Under our leadership we trained about 500 brave young men. On 21st May the camp began at Palashi by the Bhagirathi River in Nadiya district. We rigorously trained for 18 hours a day for three months.
TDS: What impact did Operation Jackpot have on the Liberation War?
AWC: The commando operation was unique with a 100 percent success rate. It broke the lifeline of the Pakistanis in totality and they had no option but to surrender soon. We planned to destroy four places—Chittagong, Mongla, Chandpur and Narayanganj. Chittagong was the most important. I was the Chief of Operation Jackpot in Chittagong with 60 commandos under my command. The mission was to sink ships by using Limpet mines and block the channel. We attacked each ship with 3 commandos. It was practically a suicidal mission. Dr. Shah Alam BU was my deputy commander. They were all courageous commandos. The assistance of local associates was also great.
We attacked 11 ships on the 14th August night after midnight, demolishing 9 ships. Chittagong port was declared nonoperational for international shipping. We did it with zero casualties. Subsequently, Operation Jackpot sank 45 ships in Bangladesh -- in Chittagong, Mongla, Chandpur and Narayanganj. We bowled them out.
TDS: What's your message going forward?
AWC: Today, I want to say we have no enemy. How can we be an enemy to each other? Are we not all Bangladeshis? Let us build this country together, look after the little ones with love and affection. Bangladesh is the most beautiful country in the world and her people are the best. Liberation War comes once in a lifetime. I am proud that I could avail the opportunity and to some extent prove my leadership in the crisis of Bangladesh during the Liberation War. Will prove it again if need be.